WHEN Michelle Wright's school friends lined up for sausage rolls and the like at lunchtime, she would scurry off to the toilets where she would consume her lunch. As the daughter of Sri Lankan migrants she was keen to fit in, "but it would have been sticking my head above the parapet to say I was having curry sandwiches".
She used some of that feeling of difference and exclusion in writing Maggot, the story that has won this year's Age short-story award. She wins $1000.
Wright's story tells of the bullying of Margot, aka "Maggot", at the hands of a group of kids and is seen largely from the point of view of Carmel, a curry-sandwich-eating girl known as Kamahl. Maggot is only Wright's second story.
But Graeme Simsion, who won second place for Three Encounters with the Physical, is in a very different place in his writing career.
In June, Simsion won the Victorian Premier's Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript, and in February that first novel, The Rosie Project, will be published. The sale of overseas rights to 32 countries has earned him more than $1 million.
And third-place winner Ruby J. Murray, with Hunting Animals, had her first novel, Running Dogs, published in May. The judges also commended three stories: McCaffrey: By an Obituarist by Lucas Smith, The Gift by Enza Gandolfo and Good People by Rebecca Harrison.
One of the judges, writer Catherine Ford, said Wright's story had technical flair and a ready grasp of the dynamics, psychological requisites and pitilessness of short-story writing.
"Her characters – some cruel, some hapless – say and do devastating, heartbreaking, things to each other. Her bully-boys and girls play at dangerous games. Her victims get hurt ... Maggot is a prickly, provocative and moving story."
Wright, who works in Whitehorse Council's community development office, said children would always find some point of difference. "A sense of empathy doesn't develop until later in adolescence," she said.
Another judge, Age theatre and fiction reviewer Cameron Woodhead, described Wright's story as a poignant, clear-eyed and considered example of how empathy could be reinstated through artful fiction.
There were about 850 stories entered into the competition and the judges were Catherine Ford, Cameron Wood and your correspondent. The stories were assessed anonymously after an initial sifting by the Melbourne centre of PEN, the international writers' organisation.
The three prize-winning stories will be published in January.